CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- During the first week of October, seven schools in Kanawha County will serve their students a lunch of beef sliders, corn on the cob, potato wedges and cherry or peach crisp, made entirely with West Virginia produce and meat.
On Friday, Preston High School served its students a lunch of West Virginia ground beef, broccoli and cantaloupe. West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Helmick promoted the lunch in Kingwood as the kickoff of a statewide "farm-to-school" program, but similar local-food programs have been going on throughout the state for several years.
Tucker County High School recently completed work on a 2,160-square-foot greenhouse, and is building a high tunnel -- basically an unheated greenhouse -- of the same size.
The project was funded by a grant from the state Department of Natural Resources and also has been supported by the Department of Education and the Tucker Community Foundation.
Agriculture students from the school's vocational program work the greenhouse, which produced 40,000 plants this year. Biology, chemistry and environmental science classes help out, as well. In the spring, the school acts as a nursery, selling flower and vegetable seedlings to the community.
Then, in the summer, agriculture students take seedlings to gardens -- either at their homes or on land donated by a school board member -- and grow the vegetables to harvest. These "supervised agricultural experiences" are part of the students' required curriculum. All summer the students sell their produce to local farmers markets. Now that school is back in session, they're selling the vegetables back to the school.
"Every day since the first week of school, there's been fresh vegetables [in the cafeteria] from our students," said Assistant Principal Jr Helmick. "You can't get much fresher than that."
The school chef is now working with students to process and can excess produce that will be served in the cafeteria over the winter.
Last school year, West Virginia farms sold nearly $400,000 in products and produce to schools. More than 30 of the state's 55 counties participated, buying at least some of their food from local producers.
Granted, that $400,000 is a veritable drop in the bucket when compared to the nearly $100 million state schools spend on food annually, but the local share is growing, providing fresher, more nutritious food for students and giving a consistent customer base to local farmers.
Kanawha County schools get some local products year-round, but this time of year, when fields and markets are flush with vegetables, they get about 25 percent of their food from local producers, county food services director Diane Miller said.
"We're taking it one step at a time, but I have six or seven local farmers that we're purchasing from," Miller said of the county's program, which started in 2011.
Miller buys eggs from a farm in Milton; English cucumbers, romaine lettuce and tomatoes from Gritt's Farm in Buffalo; squash, radishes and Brussels sprouts from Fish Hawk Acres in Rock Cave; lettuce from the Kanawha Institute for Social Research & Action greenhouse near Dunbar; and peaches and apples from Kilmer's Farm in Inwood.
Farmers get less money selling in bulk to schools than they do at retail farmers markets, but schools offset that with other benefits.
"Obviously, we get a better price from the farmers market than we do from the schools," said Dale Hawkins of Fish Hawk Acres, "but it's a lot more costly to staff a farmers market, and we can sell a lot more to the schools."
Fish Hawk Acres is one of several farm cooperatives around the state in which smaller farmers band together to sell their produce as a group. Hawkins represents 14 growers, mostly in Lewis and Upshur counties, who sell to school districts in six counties.